Classic Movie Hub and Once Upon a Screen are joining forces this week to celebrate the release of a dual Hollywood biography. Victoria Riskin, daughter of a famous leading lady and a distinguished writer, wrote about the lives and careers of her famous parents in Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir, which is now available. If you are a fan of Wray and Riskin, you will no doubt enjoy each of their stories, but if you are a fan of Hollywood history then you cannot do without this book.
A few days ago, I published a post on The Most Dangerous Game as a tribute to Fay Wray. Today I honor Robert Riskin in my small way and could have chosen any number of films by which to do so. After all, Riskin was a sought after writer and a man deeply entrenched in Hollywood lore. In the end, however, I decided on what I viewed as an unlikely Riskin collaboration, Richard Thorpe‘s The Thin Man Goes Home (1944).
By 1944, Robert Riskin had received four Academy Award nominations, winning one for Best Writing, Adaptation for It Happened One Night (1934). The other nods came for Lady For a Day (1933), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), and You Can’t Take it With You (1938). In addition to those, Riskin penned such gems as Platinum Blonde (1931), American Madness (1932), Lost Horizon (1937), and Meet John Doe (1941). The latter followed by The Thin Man Goes Home three years later for which Riskin co-wrote the original story and the screenplay. If you are like me, you’re asking yourself why there was a three-year gap between screenplays for such a prolific writer and the answer is there was no gap. When the attack on Pearl Harbor happened in 1941, Riskin was already committed to writing The Thin Man Goes Home, which he longed to complete before doing his part for the war effort. I can only guess that the movie’s release was delayed due to the War and perhaps due to W. S. Van Dyke‘s death in 1943. The Thin Man Goes Home is the first entry in The Thin Man series Van Dyke did not direct. Richard Thorpe took the helm in his place with Edward Buzzell directing the last film in the series, Song of the Thin Man in 1947.
Another thing that I found perplexing was that Robert Riskin wrote a Thin Man story at all. As beloved as The Thin Man series of movies is, by the fifth installment the whole thing was bound for monotony at best. The Thin Man Goes Home is the fifth of six “Thin Man” movies released by MGM from 1934 to 1947. I thought the impossibility of making a fifth installment even remotely entertaining would ring especially true for a writer of Riskin’s caliber and according to Victoria Riskin’s book that is the way it was. Robert wrote the story probably as a favor to his brother Everett Riskin who produced the film for MGM. However, the popular writer found the prospect tedious at best. According to A Hollywood Memoir, “He found it impossible to weave meaning or purpose into a comedy about detectives who lined the high life and drank too much…” In describing the experience to Fay Wray to whom he had just declared his love, Riskin said he could barely remember the scenes he had written for the movie a week after he had written them. Not helping matters was the news about the War’s escalation, the difficulties in Europe and Riskin’s search for his role in the War effort. In June 1942, he found the role, an important one designed by President Roosevelt himself. Robert Riskin was to be the head of The Overseas Film Division of the Office of War Information (OWI) and “over the next three years he produced twenty-six short movies designed to win the hearts and minds of people abroad.” (Riskin)
The premise of The Thin Man Goes Home is quite simple, Nick and Nora (William Powell and Myrna Loy) visit Nick’s parents in his hometown of Sycamore Springs in New England. If you’re familiar with the couple you’ll notice something different in this entry immediately – Nick is not drinking. The great Harry Davenport plays Nick’s father, Dr. Charles, and he has always dreamed of his son becoming a doctor and collaborating with him on a project for a new hospital. Not familiar with his son’s natural talents for investigation, the Doctor views Nick as little more than a beat cop. Meanwhile, Nick longs for his father’s approval hence the no alcohol rule. Although it is worth noting, that America had restrictions on alcohol due to WWII, which may account for the convenient – and enjoyable – plot point.
Worried that Dr. Charles is not respecting her husband, Nora comes up with a scheme to involve Nick in a murder mystery so the old man can be duly impressed. Unfortunately and as expected, a murder happens and Nick goes about his usual shenanigans to find the underlying cause of it. Well, without giving you all of the details, in the end the Doctor is quite impressed with his son’s skills and the entire town of Sycamore Springs attend to witness it. We all know Nick Charles loves an audience.
The colorful characters in The Thin Man Goes Home truly are what makes the movie fun to revisit. Of course, most of us would watch Powell and Loy in anything. This is the twelfth of the fourteen films the duo made together. Goes Home also offers a fantastic list of supporting players. The aforementioned Davenport is a perfect choice for the elder Charles and Lucile Watson who plays Nick’s mother does so in delightful fashion.
Also in for the festivities in Sycamore Springs are Lloyd Corrigan as Nick’s childhood friend and the town’s medical examiner, Edward Brophy as this installment’s version of Nick’s low life friend, and Anne Revere is Crazy Mary, an eccentric mixed up in the mystery. Then you have Leon Ames as a suspicious character. Goes Home reunites Ames with Davenport as they both have important roles in Meet Me in St. Louis released the same year. Finally, among other memorable actors in this are Gloria De Haven, Helen Vinson, and Donald Meek. There are so many familiar faces in this that it feels as if Sycamore Springs were our home as well.
The Thin Man Goes Home enjoyed its premiere in New York City on November 21, 1944 with the wide release in early 1945. The box office was not stellar by any means, but it was not an embarrassment either. Nineteen forty five was a fantastic year for movie releases and the Charleses held their own, even if the critics balked a bit in comparisons with the early Thin Man releases. Still, Variety and The New York Times used such accolades as “neatly-fashioned whodunit” and “entertaining yarn”. Again, all anybody needs are William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles to make an entertaining yarn. Robert Riskin need not have worried about the tedium, because what bores a genius may well entertain the masses as The Thin Man Goes Home proves.
This is one of my entries for Fay Wray and Robert Riskin, The Blogathon, which was created to celebrate the release of Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir on February 26, 2019. The book is written by their daughter, Victoria Riskin. I’ve read it and can tell you it is a fantastic read. I am also thrilled to be co-hosting this blogathon with friend Annmarie at Classic Movie Hub. Be sure to visit both our blogs on March 2 and 3 for fabulous entries honoring two extraordinary careers.